Three Minutes to Doomsday
1 “SUBJECT RAMSAY WAS NAKED . . . ”
August 23, 1988
I’m thirty-five now, and I’ve been working for the FBI most of my adult life, since I was twenty-three years old. My recruiter told me back when I joined up that I was the second youngest person ever offered a position with the Bureau. I don’t know about that, but strangely enough—since I can never play football competitively again—the sport is what landed me on the FBI radar screen, at least in a roundabout way.
While I lay in that hospital in Miami, watching my senior high-school year drift away, thirty-one of my thirty-two athletic scholarship offers disappeared. A single one survived, from Brigham Young University. LaVell Edwards, BYU’s coach, called one afternoon to say that he still liked me, that I was big and fast. Why not give it a try? I did just that, for three days, by which time the arm I’d nearly lost a few months earlier was swollen to three times normal size and the docs were talking blood clots and possible nerve damage.
That was the official dead end of my dreams of gridiron glory, but I stayed on at BYU, supporting myself with a mix of scholarship money, loans, and odd jobs, including one as a campus policeman, at the suggestion of my criminology professor. And thus when the
NSA, the CIA, and the FBI came recruiting at BYU, as they always do in abundance at Mormon-dominated schools, my background seemed particularly apt: campus cop, graduate of the Utah Police Academy, a devout anti-Communist in general and a Cuban émigré stridently opposed to Fidel Castro in particular, and ardently in love with America. Maybe I really was the second-youngest recruit. What better combination of traits could the Bureau have been looking for?
As for me, I was so desperate for paying work that I said yes on the spot, really without giving it another thought.
* * *
ONE THING I SOON learned: There are no normal hours in the FBI. Contractually, I work ten and a half hours per day, but I’m constantly being asked to do more and more with less and less. It’s not just my own cases that eat away time. There’s always some new shortage, always “the needs of the Bureau”—a term that pecks at me every time I think I’m going to have a weekend off and instead have to cancel family time once again.
While I’m stationed in Puerto Rico, they need SWAT operators to work on terrorism cases, so I get volunteered by my supervisor—“volunteered” as in one day I see my name on a list to attend Basic-SWAT for four weeks and that’s that. Not that I mind all that much. The training is fun, and really, who doesn’t want to have an MP-5 Heckler & Koch suppressed submachine gun in the trunk of his car? But suddenly, every few weeks, on top of my regular work, there are the SWAT operations, and some of those last days. They can involve anything from an airplane hijacking to a takedown of the Machetero terrorist group (macheteros means “machete wielders,” but these guys were good with guns, rifles, and bombs, too).
But what really eats up my spare time is the flying. In researching my background, the Bureau learns that I received my pilot’s license in high school. Once I come on board, it isn’t long before I start getting calls to help with aerial surveillance. Do I complain? Not
really. Going from the bare-bones Cessna 150 I’d trained in to a Cessna 182 with retractable gears and air-conditioning is a huge step up, and this time I’m being paid to fly, not the other way around. But the hours are killers. Often, I work a regular shift, then pilot 6 p.m. till midnight—a great time to fly because the air is generally calm at night—but add it all together and I’m putting in way too many sixteen-hour days. When my family does see me, I’m so tired I sometimes doze off standing on my feet in line at the supermarket.
Ultimately, the flying and the SWAT operations take a mental backseat to what I really enjoy—counterintelligence work or “CI.” The thing about CI work is that it connects you to the world. It makes you pay attention to what’s happening in faraway places. Any country can tolerate bank robberies, carjackings, rapes, even riots, but espionage is the only crime a nation can potentially not survive. With the right kind of intelligence, you can render another nation inert or change the course of history. That’s why I love CI—because it really matters.
I start just about every work morning with the daily intelligence brief that comes clacking in over our teletype machine a little after sunrise. Today’s no different. Last night I was up almost to midnight, flying lazy circles over Tampa Bay, helping out another squad short on surveillance agents. This morning, I’m touring the world’s hot spots, searching for anything in the overnight synopsis that might find its way back to Central Florida.
Example: Police in Lima, Peru, yesterday raided the plant that prints the newspaper El Diario, thought to be the voice of the Maoist guerilla group Sendero Luminoso, aka Shining Path. Sounds like a stretch, I admit, but when Maoist guerillas in South America get upset, I take notice because Cuba’s Americas Department funds extremism in the region, and the Marxist ex-guerilla in Havana can sometimes get a little itchy himself.
Some things I can pretty much take a pass on. I’m sorry that hundreds died and thousands were injured in an earthquake that rocked northern India and Nepal, but there’s not much I can do about
plate tectonics that far away. The state of national emergency just declared in Pakistan is another matter. A few days ago President Zia and ten of his top generals disappeared in a midair explosion. Now Zia’s successor, Ishaq Khan, is telling reporters that “the enemy has penetrated the inner defense of the country.” Does “enemy” mean India? Probably, but unrest on or near the Subcontinent can easily spill over borders, and Tampa has been home since 1983 to the United States Central Command, whose responsibilities include Central Asia. Part of my job is to watch CentCom’s back. The Pakistan-India conflict is also a proxy tug-of-war between China and the USSR—this could get ugly overnight.
As always, the Middle East is thick with violence and intrigue. In Haifa, a hand grenade tossed into a crowded sidewalk café has wounded twenty-five, including seven members of a single family that had been admiring the window display at a toy store.
Another dog-bites-man story: The IRA has struck again in Northern Ireland—eight dead and twenty-eight wounded this time when a bomb explodes aboard a civilian bus carrying British soldiers. The bomb, which the IRA said was fashioned from two hundred pounds of Czech-made Semtex, left a crater six feet deep. This story is also less distant than you might think. We have IRA financial supporters in Tampa who probably woke up cheering this very morning.
Counterintelligence is inevitably biased toward the biggest gorilla in the room, and that’s the Soviet Union. They have the most spies, the most money, and they get most of my attention, but the Warsaw Pact countries are nothing to snicker at. East Germany is far smaller than the USSR, but its intelligence service, run by the legendary Markus Wolf, is even tougher to crack than the KGB. Not just tougher. Better—in a very scary way.
In Poland, I read, seventy-five thousand coal miners are out on strike, demanding that Solidarity, the outlawed trade union, be legalized. Moscow can’t be happy with this. The KGB would love nothing better than to get rid of Pope John Paul II and his influence over his
fellow Poles. In fact, the Soviets via the Bulgarians have already made one assassination attempt. Now Moscow is witnessing what it sought to erase: influence over power. The Pope is making the KGB quake. Yet another hot spot: In Czechoslovakia, source of the Semtex that blew the British police to smithereens in Northern Ireland, a small group gathered two days ago in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to sing the Czech national anthem on the twentieth anniversary of the day two hundred thousand Warsaw Pact troops and five thousand tanks rolled into the country to crush the so-called Prague Spring.
By itself, none of this Soviet stuff is particularly alarming: Even seventy-five thousand angry miners pose no serious threat to the world’s Other Superpower—the USSR has crushed the yearning of people to be free before and they’ll do it again. But put it all together, and something is happening. Courage is breaking out behind the Iron Curtain, or maybe just the multiple failures of the Soviet system at all levels—economic, political, moral—are finally becoming impossible to ignore and cover up.
Either way, it might be a little early to start celebrating the Soviets’ decline. The KGB has both the power to quash and suppress, and the incentive. I remember talking to a Soviet KGB defector once. “We can never afford to let go,” he told me. “We’ve all seen how the crowds hung Mussolini’s body when his government fell. That’s what will happen to us, especially in Eastern Europe—they hate us there.”
I’m thinking there’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded Russian bear when Jay Koerner, my supervisor, approaches my desk. The time is 7:57 a.m. The date: Tuesday, August 23, 1988, and while I have no way of knowing, the next decade of my life has just been spoken for.
“Yours,” he says, handing me a teletype from FBIHQ. “Now.”
“Mine?” I’ve got a full day ahead of me and am scheduled to help out with surveillance tonight.
“Lynn’s out of town. The army intel guy will be here in half an hour.”
Jay is halfway back to his office by the time I look down at the teletype. I like Jay. He never gets in the way, but he’s not a conversationalist. The message is from the National Security Division, and in typical Bureau style it reads:
Anytime after 0400 hrs Zulu 8/23/88, you are to locate and interview Roderick James RAMSAY, last known to be living in Tampa, Florida, regarding his knowledge of or association with Clyde Lee CONRAD while stationed at 8th ID, Bad Kreuznach, West Germany: service years 1983–85. INSCOM [Army Intelligence] will liaise and assist: locate, interview, report.
In criminal investigations, information is power, which means that the document I’m holding is the equivalent of a five-watt bulb, barely enough to light a glove compartment. Still, I’m intrigued. The very fact that INSCOM—the US Army Intelligence Security Command—is involved means there’s probably more at stake here than selling PX cigarette coupons on the black market. By the time my army CI counterpart walks in the door, I’m actually anxious to talk with him.
Al Eways, the INSCOM liaison, turns out to be a nice guy, but time is short, and his obligations are many. Roderick James Ramsay, our interviewee, is but one of multiple interviews on his overstuffed calendar.
“Let’s get going” are not quite his first words to me, but close enough. To emphasize the point, Al hands me an address and adds, “We think this is where he is.” A minute and a half later, I’m behind the wheel of my Bu-Steed—agent-speak for our drab government-issue sedans. Al, at the other end of the front seat, has his nose buried in notes, presumably a backgrounder on Ramsay, but I’m only guessing. I drive, he reads. It’s not my place to pry.
CI operates on a strict need-to-know basis. Al is free to fill me in on the details, but the protocol is very straightforward: Unless
he tenders the information to me, I’m going to be in the dark until he starts interviewing the subject. Sounds a little counterintuitive, I know, but observing carefully and learning on the go is sometimes the best way.
The first challenge is to find the address I’ve been handed. I know the general area—a sprawling enclave of single-wide trailers northwest of the Tampa airport, in an area once known for its oranges. A month or two back I flew surveillance over this same patch of ground, following a low-level drug dealer. We’ll find the place, I know that, so I start thinking safety.
Where am I? Where’s the closest hospital? Who’s in the area? Young people or old? Mothers pushing strollers or out-of-work males standing on street corners? Are there teenagers roaming the streets?
As I look for the address, I’m also thinking of where to park. I want the driver’s side away from the residence so if I need to, I can use the engine block for cover and have the advantage of distance. We’re near now, but I circle a few more times to get the lay of the land in case I need to get away in a hurry or have to call for help.
And then there’s the real purpose of all this: the interview itself. What are we going to talk about? How will we get this Ramsay guy to relax? People tell you a lot more when they feel in their comfort zone than when you have them sweating on the rack. One more thing: At the end of the day, I’m responsible for more than our safety. I’m on the hook for this interview, too. Ramsay is a civilian, and INSCOM technically has no jurisdiction over a civilian. Still, I have to give Al leeway because he’s holding the cards; he knows more than I do. If anything goes wrong, though, it’s going to be my ass on the line.
Al and I are silent as we drive past a well-kept single-wide trailer with a dark-green latticework skirt. “That’s the place,” Al says a little quizzically as I glide past and circle the neighborhood one more time.
“Got it,” I reply. “Just making sure I know the territory.”
Al is paying attention now, too, and I appreciate that. A lot of
counterintelligence involves running down blind alleys, but we’ve got a saying in the FBI: There’s no such thing as a routine interview or stop. Take it too casually, and it might be the last one you ever do.
One time, I was helping the local sheriff’s office in Yuma, Arizona, with an arrest when the guy we were looking for stuck a gun out his front door and blasted away. One round grazed the head of the deputy I was standing inches away from. A year later, still in Yuma, I was on the phone arranging a basketball game with a couple of FBI agents in the El Centro, California, office, sixty miles west, while they waited for an interviewee who’d promised to stop by to see them. He did, also with gun blazing, while I was still on the line. One of the agents was alive, writhing in his own blood, when I got there. He died moments later. The shooter was lying there, too, dead by his own hand. These things stay with you forever, like the smell of a dead body—something you never forget.
* * *
THIS TIME, AT LEAST, the drama is minimal. Turns out, no one is home when we knock on the trailer door. All this driving around has accomplished nothing except to alert local residents that strangers are on their turf. One of the locals steps forward and asks if we need help. We tell him we’re looking for Rod Ramsay.
“This is his mother’s place,” he says. “Rod’s house-sitting a little ways over.”
Al and I look so much like law enforcement that the guy doesn’t even bother asking why we’re here, but he does helpfully provide us with an address and points with his chin in the general direction we’re to follow, and the new neighborhood, in fact, is no more than two minutes away—small tract homes built back in the early sixties. Now it’s twenty-five years later, and their best days are long behind them. After I find the right house, park, and lock the Bu-Steed’s door, I see a shadow crossing in front of the front picture window. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s the shadow of a man not wearing a stitch of clothing.
“Was that person naked?” I ask, but Al is already at the door—directly in front of the door, in fact, pretty much exactly where you don’t want to be. In the Bureau, we call doors “lethal funnels.” Stand dead center in front of one, and you’re so well framed that even a piss-poor, myopic, astigmatism-ridden shooter would have trouble missing you.
We can hear movement inside the house through the open windows—maybe cabinets opening and closing, someone tramping around—but no one is coming to the door, and I hate standing there for so long.
“Wonder what’s going on,” Al says.
By this point, I wonder so much what’s going on that I slip back the right side of my suit coat just enough to easily get to the Sig Sauer P-226 I’m carrying in a holster right by my kidney. Ninety percent of gunfights take place from less than seven yards—narrower than most living rooms. The quicker you can get your handgun in play, the sooner it all ends—so my hand loiters just behind my hipbone.
Al is starting to look a little nervous himself when the chain slips off its bracket, the door opens, and there stands Rod Ramsay in all his gawkiness: six-foot-one and maybe 150 pounds. Thank goodness, he’s fully clothed, in jeans and a sleeveless checkered shirt.
“Can I help you?” Rod asks with a slight Boston accent.
Instead of answering, we show him our credentials—INSCOM and FBI. If he’s fazed, he does a good job of hiding it. Rod looks over both credentials carefully, but his eyes stay on my FBI creds just a tad longer. I suspect I’d do the same. In any event, I take it as an invitation to break the ice.
“Are you Rod Ramsay?” Seems an obvious question to ask, but I’ve known agents who’ve spent a half hour interviewing someone before figuring out they’re talking to the wrong person.
“Would it be okay if we come inside to talk?”
Now I see the first little bit of concern. His hand comes up and just grazes his neck. This is the legacy of sixty million years or more
of human evolution. In the old days, when big cats were the greatest threat to our hominid ancestors, they learned to protect their throat first when threatened.
“What’s this about?” Rod asks. Another sign of nervousness: His Adam’s apple rises.
“Well,” I say, with a smile, “you can relax, we’re not here to talk about you—we just need to pick your brain about the Eighth ID.” This is crucial because if he says, “Take a hike,” we have nothing. You can prepare for days, and screw everything up in minutes if you put the subject immediately on the defensive.
Happily, Rod is buying what I have to sell. Relieved, he says, “Sure, come on in.” As we enter, my eyes have a hard time adjusting to the darkness.
Just to make certain Rod understands I am not a Bureau suit like you see on TV, I stare at him with a grin on my face as Al gathers his paperwork. “Was that you walking across the room when we arrived?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he answers with a little giggle. “I’d just gotten up. I was still naked.”
“I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t seeing things or someone else,” I said, probing to see if there’s another person here we need to worry about.
“No, that was me. Sorry, I forgot the windows were open.”
* * *
ARMY INTELLIGENCE GUYS ALL go to the same interview school and use the same interview manual. Their techniques are spelled out for them—by the book, detailed, rigid—and that just isn’t my style. These guys are true pros, no question about it, but their interviews are like forced marches, from A to Z. They rarely look up from their legal pads and notebooks long enough to study the nonverbal reactions of the people they’re talking with—or more often, talking to.
Al is no different, but for now, I’m perfectly happy to let him plow on ahead with his agenda because it gives me time to assess Rod Ramsay, not for guilt or innocence—he’s committed no crime so far as I know—but for how I’m going to accumulate face time with him, today and maybe in the future if needed. When I talk to people, I want to know how they communicate, and everyone is different. I want to get a sense for how they think about questions, how quickly they answer, their speech cadence, what words they use, how they hide their sins, minor and major. Interviews are always about people. The more I know about their idiosyncrasies, the easier it is to assess what they’re really saying.
Example: Al is asking Ramsay a string of rote questions about his service record—“Ever confined to barracks or busted a rank?” . . . “Ever get written up?” . . . that sort of thing—when all of a sudden Ramsay jumps in with almost reptilian coldness.
“Are you interested in my peccadilloes, Mr. Eways? Is that it? Digging for a little dirt, are we?” Ramsay says.
“Not at all,” Al answers affably, slowing down his note-taking just long enough to look up with a smile and hold up his pen in mock surrender. “Just filling in the blanks. You know how it is in the army.”
But Rod isn’t ready to let it drop.
“A chimpanzee can fill in blanks. Probably a rat could if you arranged the Skinner Box to sufficiently reward it for trying.” There’s an edge to his voice now, a kind of intentional pummeling.
“What I would suggest, Al, is that you try for some higher-order questions—you know, shoot for the stars. We’ll have a much more enlightening conversation that way.”
Ramsay favors both of us with a knowing smile at this point and nods at Al to continue with his dull recitation. Meanwhile, I’m left to wonder why a guy who lives in a single-wide trailer with his mother would be so ready to lord it over a decent, solid person like Al Eways.
Is Ramsay a narcissist? Quite possibly. He clearly has a higher opinion of himself than circumstances would justify. And maybe a
predator, too. Al has given him almost no opening, but Ramsay has leapt all the same. One more thing: Despite his seemingly snotty attitude, Ramsay is damn smart. We’ve already learned his education stopped with high school, but dropouts don’t toss around “peccadilloes” and Skinner Boxes. Maybe Rod is a big reader, maybe he’s self-taught—all I know is that he’s playing mind games with Al Eways even as he answers his questions.
* * *
WE’VE BEEN AT THIS for almost thirty minutes now, and one thing has held absolutely constant. Rod’s movements are still as jittery now as when we first walked in. Is that always the way with him? Jacked up on speed, maybe? Or has the sudden appearance at his front door of two federal agents thrown him off kilter—and if so, why? Maybe he’s naturally hyperkinetic. Some people are, but he remains jittery and that’s something I just can’t ignore.
Neither can I ignore his smoking. He’s already on his third cigarette. Nerves? Nicotine addiction? There’s not much to do at this point but note it.
Rod has led us into the kitchen, where there’s no choice but to stand as his cigarette smoke swirls around us—the eight-foot ceiling and lack of ventilation don’t help. Maybe he simply lacks social skills and that’s why he hasn’t invited us to sit down in the living room, or maybe by keeping us standing in the kitchen, he’s assuring that this interview will be brief.
I take advantage of a pause in Al’s questioning to ask a question of my own.
“Did you hear that?” I ask. “Was that someone . . . ?”
“No, no,” Rod says. “I’m the only one here. The owner won’t be back for another day.”
I haven’t stopped wondering if we’re alone in the house. We don’t have any legal standing to search to find out, but I’m satisfied with Rod’s reply. No hand to the neck this time, or to the mouth as
he talks. I listen distractedly for another couple minutes as Al and Rod talk about the average soldier’s life in Germany, then I jump in with another question:
“Are there any guns in this house?”
Rod (speaking slower, chin pulled down): “Yeah, there’s a gun in this room.”
Crap, Navarro, I tell myself, this is how you end up with a hole in your chest. Now Al is looking at me to deal with the situation.
I stare at Rod, keeping my eyes on his hands because only his hands can hurt us. Fortunately, at least one of them is occupied with his cigarette, so I say, “Look, do me a favor, just stand where you are and tell me who owns the weapon and where exactly it is.”
“Sure,” he says, “it belongs to the guy who owns the house. He keeps it in the cabinet.”
“Which cabinet?” And Rod points with his chin to the one just above the refrigerator, about a half-second lunge away from where he’s standing. Far too close for comfort. Now I’m really uneasy. We’ve still got a lot of questions to ask. There’s no air-conditioning, I can feel my weapon resting against a wet shirt, and we’re standing near what might be a loaded gun—not exactly a conducive interview setting.
“Look, Rod,” I say, “I know this isn’t your doing, but that gun makes me nervous. What’s more, it’s blazing hot in here—this is going to ruin my sperm count. How about if the three of us just continue this interview outside? What do you say?”
“Sure,” Rod says again. “Why not?” And in fact, he seems to relax almost immediately once we relocate to the great outdoors. Who knows, maybe he’s thinking there’ll be more witnesses if we decide to rough him up.
Al, for his part, barely misses a beat. He marks the last question with his thumb and starts up right where he left off as soon as we’re settled in the shade of a small, raggedy grove of palms out the back door. Just to check Rod’s veracity, I ask to use the bathroom. Once inside, I head straight for the cabinet above the refrigerator. Sure
enough there it is: a dusty .38 revolver, from a manufacturer I’ve never heard of, but it can still put a lethal hole in you.
When I get back outside, Al is ever closer to the issue at hand. I know about criminal work and I know CI, but I never served in the military. Ranks, acronyms, army shorthand—they’re all whizzing far over my head. I decide to join in only where I can.
Al: “So, you worked where?”
Rod: “In G-3 Plans [whatever that was].”
Al: “And you got out in 1985?”
Rod: “Yeah, I failed the piss test.”
Me: “What the hell’s the piss test?”
Rod, displaying a Cheshire cat grin: “Well, they did an impromptu test on us, and I guess they found cannabis in my urine.”
Me: “Gee, I wonder how it got there.”
So now I’m thinking I know a little more of the puzzle. Not only is Rod a drug user; since he must have known about random piss testing, he’s also either a risk taker or someone who doesn’t think all that clearly or often about the consequences of his actions. The smart-ass way he enunciates “cannabis” tells me something about his intellect, but I also sense from how he answered that he didn’t expect to get caught and wasn’t happy to get bounced from the army.
While I’m processing all this, Al gets to the heart of the matter: “Didn’t Clyde Conrad work in G-3 Plans for the Eighth ID back then?” And that’s when all the baselines I’ve been laying down since we arrived start crashing into play. Quick with an answer otherwise, Rod stretches this one out, as if he has to access the deepest reservoirs of his memory. Mostly precise, too, in his responses, he stumbles through a reply before finally bringing this one to a close: “Oh, sure, Clyde Conrad—of course.” He says this with little emphasis, but what really catches my eye is in his hand.
His cigarette shakes—not the familiar jitters I’ve been seeing but a good, hard tremor—like a seismograph announcing Mount St. Helens.
Before the question, a velvety, smooth contrail of smoke. Thirty seconds afterward, smooth again. But in between, at the precise moment Al Eways mentions Clyde Conrad’s name, the contrail breaks up into a sharp zigzag that Rod has no more control over than his circulation.
Is it meaningful? You bet. Anything we do that potentially threatens us—burning a finger on the stove, say, or committing a criminal act—gets stored deep in the brain, in the hippocampus, and anything that awakens that threat—a glowing heating unit, mention of our partner in crime—puts us instantly on guard. That’s what happened to Rod: For just a moment he trembled and froze, the same way any of us would temporarily freeze if we rounded a bend and saw a snarling dog in front of us.
Why would the words “Clyde Conrad” threaten Rod Ramsay?
“Rod,” I say when Al takes a pause, “your recall is exceptional. I thought this would be a short interview, but I can see where you can fill in a lot of the holes. Here’s the deal, though. It’s hot as hell, and we could use more of your help. What if we move to a hotel nearby? We’ll get a room, sit in comfort, enjoy the AC, and order a nice lunch if you want to join us.”
Rod is holding still as he listens to what I’m saying. I sense this, so I shift my weight back and angle my feet so that I’m standing just a very precious few inches farther away from him, with a more oblique angle that presents less of a threat. As Al is giving me a stiff glance, Rod responds to my slight backing away, so I raise my shoulders and smile, nonverbally saying: “What do you think?” With that, he relaxes his arms once more, and the deal is done. If he was thinking we’d put him in the trunk of my Bu-Steed and feed him to the alligators, he’s no longer worried.
“Tell you what,” I say. “You think your mom is home yet?”
“Most likely,” he says.
“Then call her. Tell her we’re headed to the Pickett Hotel, over on US 60, where we can do our business in comfort, and see if she has any concerns. Fair enough?”
In part, I’m just being practical here. In that close-knit trailer park, the neighbors are sure to tell Mrs. Ramsay that the feds came looking for her son. The last thing I need is a panicked mother calling an attorney at the start of a simple inquiry. But something about Rod tells me he’s not loaded with friends. Maybe his mother is all he’s got to hold on to.
“Yeah, fair enough,” he answers back, with just enough relief to make me think I’m right.
* * *
YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT seduces. Sometimes it’s a combination of things: tone of voice, a smile, standing at a slight angle so you don’t appear threatening, or maybe just the prospect of a free lunch in an air-conditioned hotel. Whatever it is, Rod agrees to come with us and that’s all that matters—more face time. Ten minutes later, Al is checking us in at the Pickett Hotel, obtaining a suite with ample room for everyone to sit and spread out. I don’t want either of us too close to Rod—this isn’t the movies, comfort is key here—and of course we have to make allowances for Rod’s smoking. While Al signs us in, Rod and I bond off to the side.
“So, what were the girls like in Germany?” I ask. Rod immediately perks up.
Honestly, I’m pulling a cheap trick, but the worst thing you can do in interviewing is set the bar at confession. What you want is what I was just talking about: face time. Get enough of it, and eventually you’ll learn everything you want to know. Rod, as I said earlier, is a bit gawky. His face seems weathered, even at his early age, by acne scars and heavy smoking. I doubt that the city’s most sought-after females lie in bed at night dreaming of Rod Ramsay’s thin lips pressed against theirs. But I’m also betting Rod likes to think of himself as a ladies’ man, and if I treat him like one—feed his narcissism—he’ll want to be near me so I can feed it some more. The reemergence of that Cheshire cat grin tells me I’m right.
“Did you know prostitution is legal in Germany?” he asks.
“No! Were they really good-looking?”
“Oh,” he says with a little moan, “there was this one I frequented a lot. She was unbelievably good-looking, built like a supermodel. I’d call in to the service just for her. I spent a fortune on that woman.” Rod has his eyebrows arched again as he says this.
“Sometimes a couple hundred a week. Once I dropped twelve hundred dollars on her in one week alone, but God was she worth it. What a body!”
“How about the marijuana?” I say, bending the subject. “Just between us girls, what would a bag go for in Germany back then?”
“Well,” he answers, all businesslike, “a three-finger bag might be the equivalent of twenty-two bucks. I’d go through one of those a week.”
By the time Al gets back to our corner of the lobby with the room key, I’ve not only learned about Rod’s lifestyle during his tour in Germany—dope and whores—I’ve also developed a pretty good feel for his personal economics, and they’re troubling. I might never have served in the military, but I worked beside army sergeants in my Yuma posting, and I happen to know that they earn less than $100 a week. Rod’s marijuana tab alone would have eaten up a quarter of that. Unless he’s got a trust fund not readily evident from his current circumstances, his prostitute bill even in a slow week would have put him seriously in debt, and this (like cannabis) is a service not discounted at the base PX. Either Rod was living far beyond his means in Germany, or he had means far beyond his rank. And if so, where did they come from?
Every new thing I learn about Rod makes him more of a mystery, but in America, you’re allowed to be an enigma . . . so long as you stay on the right side of the law.
* * *
UPSTAIRS, THE HOTEL HAS just the effect I’d hoped for. The AC soothes us, after an hour-plus on our feet in and around that little oven of a house; the ample sofa and two easy chairs are just what the doctor ordered. Even Al eases off long enough to let me jump in with some questions.
“Tell me about this G-3,” I say to Rod. “I don’t know the Eighth Infantry Division from the ‘Twelfth of Never.’ ” Rod wasn’t even born when Johnny Mathis recorded that song, but a little nod of his head says that he appreciates the cultural allusion and the tacit assumption that he’ll pick up on it.
“G-3 is where the plans are made and stored for going to war.”
“With the Soviets. In case you haven’t noticed, Joe, the Warsaw Pact is just across West Germany’s eastern border.”
The “Joe” part intrigues me. It’s been “Al-this” and “Al-that” almost since we showed him our credentials, but he hasn’t called me anything previous to this, not even “Agent Navarro.” I’m starting to realize that in almost everything Rod says there is calculation. So where’s he going with the “Joe” bit?
“Indulge me,” I say. “Dispel my ignorance.” And he does.
“When it comes to us against them, it’s all how a given side reacts, how it deals with contingencies. Everything is constantly changing, so the plans have to be updated almost weekly. What’s the troop force count? What’s the air force going to do? Or NATO forces? What happens if the space shuttle goes down in Siberia instead of the Mojave Desert? Remember when we lost the three H-bombs over Spain?” (I do. January 1966. A midair collision between a US B-52 and a US KCK-135 jet tanker, and I know Rod is testing me with the question.) “What if something similar happens tomorrow over, say, Bulgaria? We need contingency plans for any number of scenarios.”
This is good. Rod likes educating me, likes showing off his knowledge. And when it comes to G-3 and related subjects, he’s got a ton of it—I’m impressed. He talks as I’d expect a senior army officer to
brief. He understands tactical and strategic matters at a level that is startling. Plus, he also understands history and how it factors in—I’m fascinated by what he knows . . . and deeply aware that if this interaction between us continues beyond today’s meeting, Rod will be a challenge.
A lot of times when I interview people with highly specialized knowledge—doctors and lawyers, for example—they quickly become very arrogant, so disdainful that they forget we agents are the ones who’ll throw the full weight of government at them if they don’t turn it down a notch. Rod isn’t like that, not that obvious—he doesn’t have the educational credentials. But I can feel him edging toward a red line as I ask questions and he answers.
Though Al likely doesn’t realize it yet, Rod seems to have dismissed him as a threat. He’s smart enough to know that because he’s a civilian the army and INSCOM have no hold on him. Poof! In Rod’s head Al is already gone—a zero threat. Now he’s trying to figure out how to get the upper hand with me.
“Joe,” he asks, patronizingly, “how high is your clearance?”
“Pretty high,” I answer.
“No, Joe, exactly how high? Do you have a top-secret clearance?”
“How about SCI?” he asks, referring to sensitive compartmented information.
It’s obvious he’s going to keep walking up this ladder, and I’m getting tired of his increasingly snotty tone, so I decide to end it right there.
“Roderick,” I say, lowering my voice, leaning forward while making sure our eyes don’t break contact, “I am cleared for weird, do you understand? I have a higher clearance than anyone in this room, including Mr. Eways, and that’s why I’m here.” At this point even Al is sitting still—you can feel the chill in the room—but I’m not through. I take our uncomfortable silence and hold on to it as the
muscles in my jaw intentionally throb. After a few moments Rod gathers himself up on the couch, breaks eye contact, and looks at me contritely. Message received.
It’s by far the sharpest tone I’ve taken with Rod since we met, but I’ve done it without raising my voice and for a very specific reason: I don’t want him to feel threatened, but I don’t want him to feel superior to me either. If Rod is going to have to be interviewed again on this matter—whatever the matter might be—I’ll most probably be the one doing it, and I don’t interview people who feel superior. That’s a losing proposition. No one confesses to a fifteen-year-old, which is exactly the situation when an interview subject feels superior.
Surprisingly, Rod seems to like me enough to tolerate being put back in his place. His look softens, and he nods amiably. I said what I had to say and I move on—no harangue. Rod, I’m noticing, gets it quickly. For both of us it’s game on.
* * *
THERE’S STILL THE MATTER of that shaking cigarette to puzzle over. It’s happened twice now. Maybe twenty minutes ago, back when we first got onto the G-3 stuff, Al happened to blurt out something like “Didn’t Clyde Conrad have something to do with those plans also?” Al didn’t look up from his notes long enough to see Rod’s response, but I did. Rod’s cigarette trembled again and sent another zigzag of smoke curling to the ceiling.
That’s two in a row. Three’s the charm, I figure, but this time I want to do the test myself, in the most controlled circumstances possible in a hotel room. To set that up, I have to calm Rod down.
Fortuitously, about this time lunch shows up: a pile of sandwiches with pickles and chips on the side, rolled in by a bellboy in a purple uniform with gold piping. Rod settles in immediately. For him and his current lifestyle, this is a nice treat, but I always like to introduce food into an interview, even when the subject has been living high on the hog. Food changes the dynamic; it’s much harder to resist
someone who has just fed you. To keep the spirit going, and to give Al a chance to swallow, I revert to my conspiratorial kidding mode.
Me: “Rod, I get a sense from what you’re telling us that officers really were not minding the store and that lower enlisted men were doing as they pleased: bending rules, smoking dope . . . ”
Rod, his smile sneaking back: “It was loose. Everyone was doing dope, even many of the officers, and of course there was the black market of PX items you could sell at a discount on the street.”
“You, of course, lived at the foot of the cross?” I say with a big grin. Rod grins back—more confirmation that laws and rules for Rod are just something to get around.
“How about wine? Was it cheap on base?”
“You like it?”
“Oh, yeah, especially the Riesling. Everyone was drunk all the time over there. There’s nothing else to do on base.”
This is now the fourth or fifth time Rod has said “everyone,” a verbal tell signaling guilt. In his mind “everyone” else is doing something bad, so why shouldn’t he? I wonder if he even pays his taxes (assuming he even makes enough these days to owe Uncle Sam) or if that isn’t necessary because “everyone” cheats.
Al goes back to asking questions about the kind of travel soldiers were allowed. Rod answers that he often walked in the countryside as many Germans do on the weekends, but he says nothing about visiting other countries. More important than the answer, though, he’s obviously relaxing. He’s talking at a normal speed. His hands aren’t flying all over the place when he answers. It must be fifteen minutes since he last lit a cigarette when he finally shakes a new one out of his thinning pack. I wait until he has it lit and has pulled that first heavy puff into his lungs before I ask the question that all this has been leading up to.
“The people you worked for, this Clyde Conrad—was he a good guy? What was he like?”
Rod is listening intently. The tissue just under his left eye and just above the cheekbone quivers slightly; usually you see that only in poker players who are bluffing. But it’s his cigarette I need to track.
“Conrad’s really smart,” he finally answers. “He used to read a lot—knew more about plans than most of the officers.” That’s when I see his cigarette shake for a third time, and I have the confirmation I’ve been looking for.
These autonomic reactions, as they’re known, are very word-specific. Kill someone with a machete, for example, and “ice pick” and “knife” aren’t going to have any effect on you. Only the word or phrase directly and specifically associated with the act triggers the threat reflex. For Rod, that phrase, I’ve now confirmed, is “Clyde Conrad,” but why? Even when they carry all that extra weight, proper nouns are hard to pin down. Maybe Conrad and Rod hung out with whores together, or as he has already hinted, they sold PX cigarettes on the black market. But to see these reactions over and over, there has got to be something serious that happened between these two.
Obviously, this has to be pursued further, but there’s a practical issue to be gotten around. Al has run out of time. Rod can take care of himself—he followed us over to the Pickett in his own down-at-the-heels Dodge Aries, which I held tight in the rearview mirror all the way to the hotel, but if I don’t get Al to the airport in the next half hour, he’s going to miss his flight.
“Why don’t you call your mom before you leave,” I suggest to Rod, “just so she doesn’t have to worry.”
“Oh, she’ll be fine,” Rod says. “I’ll call her when I get back.” He’s smiling again—a real smile this time, not a smirk. He seems glad about the answers he gave us, and really, we didn’t press him at all. If you were a fly on the wall, you might well wonder, “What the hell was achieved here?” This all sounded like storytelling and bragging, with a little Cold War historical garnish and the occasional BS. But that fly on the wall would be very, very wrong.
As Rod heads for the hotel-room door buoyed by our gratitude
and no doubt glad this is over—or so he thinks—I wait until he has his hand on the doorknob to lob one last question at him.
“By the way,” I say, “did Conrad ever give you anything?”
In the interrogation business, this is known as the doorjamb confrontation. The interview is over; the subject is feeling psychologically safe—freedom is only steps away, literally a turn of the doorknob. You never know what you might get when you try it.
“No, nothing much,” Rod says, “but he did give me a telephone number.”
Without missing a beat, he pulls a wallet out of his rear pocket, picks out a worn piece of paper, and holds it up for us.
“Can I have it?” I ask.
“Sure,” he says. “Take it.”
I pinch it by the corner, turn it over carefully, and read the number that has been written there: 266-933. I quickly notice that the number nine is written in the German style so it looks like a “g” with a curled tail, so I’m guessing Rod didn’t write it.
“What’s it for?” I ask.
“A telephone, I guess. He said to use it in the future if I had to get hold of him.” And with that Rod walks out and closes the door.
Before Rod gets to the elevators, I’ve placed the paper carefully into a hotel stationery envelope. Forget about the numbers. Something about the paper—its density, the fibers and the texture—feels very odd.